We amble into the place just after 2:16 in the morning, like we always did, like we always had. The florescent lights beam down on us, and a freshly mopped floor waits for us to trample dirt into the pale white linoleum. Past the linoleum a puce carpet holds a crowded cluster of faux wooden tables and chairs. A myriad of truckers and teenagers sit scattered across them like sand, never quite full, never quite empty. Even at the entrance I can hear the different tables chatting, about Finney’s chem class, when the next shipment is due, that girl from the bar, who’s smarter than who and who should be running what, about life. So many years later and the IHOP on Lake Shore Drive hasn’t changed.
In times past our ambling would have taken us right past Francis and into the corner table, across from The Veteran. He would always be there, the same table, the same old army jacket and unkept beard with greying hair, and same scars running across his left check, slowly stirring a cup of tea. In times past there would be at least five of us, now we were down to three, Bobby, Justin and me. The Veteran still sits in across from the corner, slowly stirring his tea, but a group of goths now sit across from him. A thin, tanned man replaces Francis, and he looks up from his receipts before scowling at the three of us and motioning for us to wait. His name tag reads Miguel.
By now we would have been seated, and Harriet would have taken our orders, most times she’d recite them with us, on lazier nights she’d just arrive at the table with our food, I spent most of my coffee shop wages tipping her. Miguel finally beckons for us to follow him, interrupting Bobby’s kinky story about his latest blonde. Justin and I catch each other’s eyes and make a silent bet about how long before we’re receiving desperate phone calls from Bobby, and how long after that before he finally breaks it off.
As we drift past the kitchen’s entrance, that threshold between foyer and eating area, the scent of grease and charred foods mixes and intermingles with the chlorine from the linoleum. The new smell that is spawned invades my nostrils, sharp and acrid and satisfying. Around us the chatter of IHOP buzzes the universe along.
Harriet left with Francis and a stocky brunette named Judy fills her hole in the IHOP. She nods her head and scratches out notes in her booklet and Justin, Bobby and I recite our usual orders. As we finish, Judy grunts her response and trundles off. We haven’t even gotten our water yet.
Usually, after Harriet made her way to the kitchen, someone would go and meet the other IHOP regulars. We’d talk and laugh, and make our adolescent attempts at wheeling and dealing. Eventually, the food would arrive and we’d eat our fill before heading out onto Lake Shore Drive. Once on the four lane freeway those of us with cars would race. No, not race, we’d weave. Shifting our cars between each other at 98 mph, juggling lanes like a clown at a birthday party, intermingling and mixing until I couldn’t tell if I was a driver or a passenger, or just who’s car I was in, daring the police to find us and chase us.
Just after 3 in the morning and we still sit at our table, finishing our food. Bobby mentions he has an early delivery to make and Justin’s fiance must be getting worried by now. After paying my share of the check I step out into the open night sky and into the tiny green Toyota I’ve rented. I make my way down Lake Shore Drive, a respectable 60 mph, toward the Quality Inn. And I dream of weaving a path through the night.